• Lake Travis Retreat is one of the key residences in DCA’s ouvre. The client’s programmatic desires pushed the office into a new realm. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Though I’ve practiced for 33 years and have been enriched by a plethora of unique clients and colleagues, I never thought that I would be a part of someone who was larger than life.

Dick Clark, FAIA, and I shared a mutual passion for design, beauty, and cuisine. These enthusiasms were propelled and nourished by travel, which provided us an endless variety of opportunities to experience life to the fullest.   

I recall sharing conversations with my colleagues at Lake|Flato in the 1980s regarding our fascination with an outlandish, yet clever, restaurant designed by Dick Clark Architects (DCA). It had unique signage that embraced an alien, atomic-like modernism in our neighborhood. It was a refreshing change for our community — yet at the same time was steeped in the local traditions of socializing, food, and libations. Dick had shaken and stirred the social norm in a very conservative town in a way that was intriguing. He had this effect everywhere he went, yet no place felt his influence more
than Austin.

I enjoyed returning to downtown Austin to experience the numerous DCA commercial projects. They pushed the envelope and effortlessly burst through the decades-old mentality of rough-sawn cedar facade retrofits that had smothered the life out of the downtown fabric. In compassionate contrast, west of Lamar Boulevard I noticed DCA’s wonderful modern American bungalow cottages that respected the roots of the neighborhood, yet soared with abandon, fueled by simple and beautiful gabled/shed geometries. These compositions infused new life and vitality, shaking up the neighborhood in a gentle way.

Dick was all over the place, jumping from renovation/additions to new stand-alone structures. A clear evolution for each project slowly breached away from the shackles of tradition and yet became clearer in the ways that honored the place and the region. 

We were all young and fearless, but Dick stood out as this mythical Falstaff character that commanded attention with his fabulous stories and knowledge base that consistently made everyone feel engaged, entertained, and special. There was no denying when you posse with Dick, the journey was kinetic and overserved with innumerable friendly conversations.

Dick practiced the art of being large and in charge. He did not believe in merely entering a room, but rather arriving, embracing — everyone and everything — engaging, and creating
a cinematic experience. His rambunctious personality was refreshing and exuberantly accepted by all.

He never hesitated to let you know if he disapproved of something — an important lesson I quickly learned while dining.  My suggestion to take a table with a window view was instantly overruled by his booming voice asserting that the restaurant’s best seat in the house was always at the bar overlooking the kitchen, as it provided the opportunity to converse and interact with the staff. He was an expert at talking shop, whether it was cooking techniques, the menu, or the origin and process of the food served.

Once while visiting Vancouver for four days, we became regulars at a French-Canadian restaurant and befriended the staff, which was composed of young Europeans on summer work visas who always had another point of view to share. I recall Dick’s numerous conversations concerning the fresh oysters, which came from some obscure Canadian bay. He concluded that, of all varieties, it was the smallest of oysters that had the biggest taste. We would laugh about the “bigger is better” concept, referencing the Persona of Dick Clark, but in the end, it was the little things, like the smaller oysters, that possessed a greater worth.

The dynamics of pushing against each other were always the best part of our relationship, especially when Mell Lawrence, FAIA, joined our wrestling team — stepping up the pace with no quarter bestowed. Particularly if one lingered on their recent successes, Dick would shift his keen focus to the future, asserting the importance of crafting the next project to greater magnitudes!

Dick would constantly interrogate us on our office team management — adamant that the most important aspect of this relationship was to nurture employees’ inherent abilities and talents and to compensate them well, so that they would have a fair chance in life. Mell would comment that everyone in the profession, and the world, really, was Dick’s family — validating his passion for this attribute.

When the smoke cleared, Mell and I began to push hard on Dick to step up and be recognized in the AIA College of Fellows — to tap into the confidence that fueled his thoughtful design with a spirit of adventure. We did our best to act against his hesitancy to submit, as we felt no one was more deserving of elevation to this honor.

Serving as his sponsor for Fellowship in collaboration with Canan Yetmen, who lent her brilliantly insightful submission skills, we began to excavate and sift through Dick’s copious output, searching for data to submit. At times, we felt challenged by Dick’s demure attitude to his great accomplishments. Despite these obstacles, our journey with him was special. Uncovering one story at a time would, in turn, lead to another, and we found ourselves mesmerized by the diversity and depth of his design adventures!

Upon learning that he was to be indoctrinated as a Fellow, my enthusiasm overflowed with a phone call every five minutes until successfully connecting two hours later. I was touched by his response, which was selfless: All he wanted to do was to let his deceased mother know of this accomplishment. It was a tender and proud moment for him, who so loved his mother, to be able to posthumously present her with something that he valued dearly. Heather McKinney, FAIA, was right when, upon achieving her Fellowship, she said that you “could never be too old to make your parents proud!”

Lessons learned on the Vancouver trip were to live life large and always remember the best oysters are the ones the size of your thumbnail! Dick Clark had a huge hand that held us all so close. His role as everyone’s parent may be the defining aspect of his legacy. He was truly larger than life. Dick clearly understood that architecture is never about self-gratification. It is a lifelong endeavor about empathy and mentorship.

John Grable, FAIA, is founder of John Grable Architects in San Antonio. Mell Lawrence, FAIA, is principal of Mell Lawrence Architects in Austin.

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